Some photos just draw you in and you can’t figure out why. Sometimes it’s actually the not knowing that’s the attraction.
That sense of confusion is exactly what the 354 Photographers collective out of Belgium is aiming for with their ongoing project Box.
“A lot of people ask us what these scenes mean and we say they can mean whatever you want,” says Maxime Delvaux, one of the collective’s members. “We want people to make their own stories.”
The photo series shows darkly bizarre dioramas built into cardboard boxes. Each was built in two to three days around the perspective of the camera to ensure the scenes have the right angle and depth. As the team begins construction, they set the camera on a tripod and are constantly looking through the viewfinder to make sure the camera can accurately capture the scene they have in their heads. Once they have the scene built, they then figure out the lighting, photograph the human subjects and then Photoshop the subjects into the setting.
Started back in 2009, Delvaux says the Box project was initially a portfolio piece for the then-budding collective whose original members also included photographers Kevin Laloux and Nicolas Velter. They wanted something they could show to potential clients that would highlight their individual skills – architectural photography, lighting, fashion photography, etc. — and demonstrate they could work with complex situations and story lines.
The dollhouse-sized cardboard settings allowed them to control every aspect of the photo. It also allowed them to capitalize on the tension of scale. As a photographer with a background in architecture, Delvaux says that if everything isn’t perfectly to scale in a photo — which sometimes it isn’t in Box — it creates an awkwardness for the viewer.
“We wanted to play with perception [in terms of the] people and objects they were around,” he says.
Once they had their setting, Delvaux says they started spitballing scenarios that they could enact. Most of the scenes are arbitrary thoughts that popped into members’ heads, but Delvaux says that’s part of the fun because the randomness of the photos is what forces the viewer to interact with the image instead of just consuming it.
“We try to not explain too much,” Delvaux says. “The point is to let people interpret the moment.”
At the moment, Box consists of nine photos and the most recent shows a young woman sitting alone at a table after a wedding. Delvaux says he and Laloux decided to create that scene because they had always been interested in the drab community halls where so many Belgian weddings take place.
They fumbled around for a while trying to decide who they’d place in the scene and finally landed on the woman sitting alone because it raised the most questions and drew out the dreariness of the setting.
“Our scenes are always a little depressing but also a little funny,” he says.
Three years into the project, which has now become personal as well as a professional, Delvaux says it’s started to pay off. Its creative approach has helped them land at least a couple of clients, including the Belgian Post mail company, which for the past three years has hired them to create similarly creative but implausible cardboard scenes that the company has used on its Christmas cards.
“I definitely think the plan is working,” Delvaux says.